Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the sanctity of human dignities, freedoms, and well-being. If, today, it remains a far-off destination, its values continue to guide and inspire. Max Richter’s Voices is a beautiful sonic journey through the Declaration’s principal ideas, combining resonating soundscapes with passages from the document. These appear first in a recording by one of its authors, Eleanor Roosevelt, and are then narrated by actor Kiki Layne, with fragments echoed in more than 70 different languages—each voice crowdsourced via social media. The whole project was 10 years in the making. “The original impetus for Voices was the events around Guantanamo, when the revelations came out about the way people had been treated there,” Richter tells Apple Music. “I felt in that moment that the world had gone wrong in a new way, and I wanted to make a piece of music to reflect on it—almost to process it.”
There’s a structure and repetition to the Declaration that appeals to Richter, providing a framework for the album. “The way the word everyone comes back all the time is very clever,” he says. “It’s got a ritualistic quality—it’s very powerful.” At the core of Voices lies a string orchestra that’s “upside down” in terms of its proportions. “It’s all basses and cellos—dark-sounding instruments,” says Richter. “But what I wanted to do is make music which had a sense of hopefulness, luminosity. So I set myself a challenge to make bright music from dark materials. It’s like alchemy—trying to make gold out of base metal.” A “Voiceless Mix” of each piece means listeners will also be able to hear Richter’s score without narration. “It’ll be a chance to think about it all,” he says, “like revisiting a landscape but arriving from another direction.” Here, he guides us through Voices, piece by piece.
All Human BeingsAll Human Beings sets everything up. It starts with a choral drone, which makes you listen—we have to pay attention to the texts, and I don’t want the music to get in the way of them. So the sound is very reduced and drone-like while we hear readings by Eleanor Roosevelt and Kiki Layne. Then it slowly grows in density and complexity. Once the readings are over, the music blossoms to become something in itself, rather than an accompaniment. I’ve worked a lot with this choir, Tenebrae. They specialize in Renaissance music, and I love that clean sound.”
Origins “A big part of this project is the idea of a piece of music as a place to think about the world we’ve made and the world we want to make. So the first part of Origins is really just that—a chance to reflect on what we’ve just heard, the spoken texts, and the things we’ve just felt. Origins starts very simply as a solo piano piece and, with a solo cello, becomes more melodic as it progresses.”
Journey PieceJourney Piece is mostly choral—it’s quite a short piece. But it speaks to the concept of displacement. In our comfortable Western lives, we think of travel as being something you do for work or pleasure. But a lot of people travel very much against their will. The texts here reflect on these things, and Journey Piece is a place to think about them.”
ChoraleChorale is scored for the orchestra with soprano and violin solos. The title comes from the cyclical nature of the material, echoing the verse structure of J.S. Bach’s chorales. Over its span, the music and the soprano line rise continuously, so the intention is that the music gets brighter the longer it plays.”
HypocognitionHypocognition means not being able to express something because you don’t have a name for it. I thought that was an interesting idea. And I think it points to the inability to be in someone else’s shoes, to see someone else’s point of view. The piece is largely electronic and has a conversational relationship with the text. The text is, in a way, the data or frontal-lobe information. And the music evokes the feelings. So, you’re given some information and then given a space to think about it.”
Prelude 6 “‘A little piano piece which seems simple but isn’t. And I think that’s a metaphor for our situation. We all know what the problems are, but it’s not easy to fix them. The piece is in two overlapping time signatures, so it has a slightly unsettled quality.”
MurmurationMurmuration explores again the idea of migration, of movement against your will, and it occupies a hybrid space between acoustic and electronic music. The sounds are mostly choral, which evoke a sense of ritual, but there is a lot of synthesis and computing going on, which provides a kind of amniotic fluid for the music to inhabit. It just floats in this space.”
CartographyCartography is the art of mapmaking, the study of places, so the piece has similar preoccupations to Murmuration. It’s a very solitary kind of piece, though, and it sits within a deep silence. Again, it’s a piece that’s not as simple as it sounds—it’s irregular and repetitive and is very much in the style of a lot of my piano music.”
Little Requiems “The text here is all about motherhood and children, and the need to afford them protection. The less able somebody is, the less they’re able to look after themselves. And, of course, children are disproportionately the victims of everything that’s going on, whether it’s migration or the situation in Syria, for example. It affects the powerless disproportionately. The music here features the string orchestra underneath a rising soprano solo, which allows you the mental space to think about that and the sampled texts.”
MercyMercy is scored for violin solo and piano, and was the first piece I wrote for the album. The title comes from Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained.’ It’s a wonderful speech, all about forgiveness. But it’s about rights, too—if you cut me, do I not bleed? The message is that all people are the same. All through Voices, you’ll hear little clues of Mercy, so the whole album ends up being a sort of theme-and-variations in reverse.”

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